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Eternally consistent, but eternally safe. - 80%

GOOFAM, June 13th, 2018

One thing I love about metal music is that, when you check out a new band, you never know what you’re going to hear. There’s no limits—you can write an 80-minute song or a 30-second song, you can throw around any instrument you want, you can employ any kind of vocal style possible, and so forth.

Of course, this sense of discovery, and the anticipation of said discovery, changes over time as one hears more and more things with different aspects. It becomes harder to be surprised, and perhaps also harder to be pleased. Though it is perhaps my favorite genre of metal, power metal might be the area that gets most affected by this. If you have any taste for this stuff at all, the first power metal you ever hear sounds epic. It sounds huge, the music is played so well, the vocals are often these massive high notes that sound godlike, and the whole thing is just so anthemic you lose yourself in it. But of course, that sets a high bar.

And power metal, in its pure form, is much more stylistically boxed-in than most other subgenres. Throw in a distinctive enough arrangement and it turns into powerprog or outright prog metal (which I like as well, but that’s beside the point). This means that in power metal, you’ve got a lot of soundalike groups, and once someone has heard a bunch of them, there becomes no need to revisit the worse ones, even if the differences between them and the best are quite slight. In other words, for experienced listeners, some power metal bands can be objectively quite good but still not worth the time.

It’s something I’ve said about the genre for years, but rarely do I feel it as acutely as when I just listened to Eternal of Sweden’s debut, Chapter I. This album is very strongly written, it’s performed by five good musicians, and it’s given a strong, clear production. Two minutes in, I was pumped for this thing. Forty-nine minutes later, though I’m obviously giving them credit for what really is a solid album, you can probably tell my feelings aren’t universally positive.

What I’ve said so far, though it might be interesting analysis to some, still really doesn’t mean anything—for all you know, I could just be some jaded power metal fan with unrealistic standards. If this thing is good but doesn’t measure up, I have to explain why. And I will.

But I don’t want this to turn into bashing this perfectly solid band just because I had a larger thought about their genre while listening to them. Let’s talk about why Eternal of Sweden is by no means bad for a moment, and then we’ll come back to this other stuff. First off, these guys absolutely can write a song. There’s hardly a note out of place on this thing, as there are plenty of catchy (if fairly simple) riffs, some generally fitting power metal key work, and the verse-prechorus-chorus builds are usually strong. Christer Gärds’ vocals are carried off well, as he brings a forceful presence that calls to mind Apollo Papathanasio, Jonny Lindqvist, and Graham Bonnet at various times, and indeed the music behind him falls somewhere between Firewind and Nocturnal Rites—two bands I quite like—in character. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the strong production brings the music to life as well as you could possibly expect—the band sounds suitably big, with punchy guitars and drums in particular. And there aren’t any songs or moments that serve as odd departures or head-scratchers. Like, the worst song on here is…maybe “Scream Higher?” And that track has a really nice opening and stomping, energetic verse section; it just has two odd chord choices in the chorus. That’s seriously the only thing really wrong with even the worst track on the album.

So why can’t I give Chapter I my full-throated endorsement? Put simply, this record plays things so safe that the band forgot to do anything remotely distinctive. The sound coheres as a whole, but the individual parts could’ve been written and performed by just about anybody. The guitar riffs, keys, and drums are all genre-standard stuff, the bass is audible and has some nice thumps and one short solo break but that’s it, and Gärds' vocals could’ve been done about as well by thirty other gravely tenors. Lindqvist, Papathanasio, Rick Altzi, Jørn Lande, Russell Allen, David Readman...okay, I’m not going to list all thirty, but they’re out there.

It’s not even so much that the band sounds generic, though they largely do. Generic can work in power metal, especially of the European style, because it’s a subgenre about adhering to conventions. The problem really is that all of the members sound individually generic, even as they all pull off their parts as well as you could ask them to. To get to the crux of the issue: nobody steps up and does anything individually interesting throughout this whole thing. Christer Gärds isn’t one to go for any kind of stratospheric high notes, and Bosse Gärds supplies a set of short guitar solos that do nothing to advance the songs. Consisting largely of hammer-on triplet runs, they’re both a little too cluttered to serve as melodic fare and too technically limited to be flashy showstoppers. Keyboardist Pontus Lekaregård takes only two solos on the album, and though they’re better than the guitar solos, they aren’t really highlights in and of themselves, either.

The band does at least vary the tempo a little bit throughout the album (though there is no balladry), and they try on some vaguely Middle Eastern (by way of Iron Maiden) feels in “Start of a New Era” and closer “The Thing.” It’s Lekaregård who seems largely responsible for this with his string patches, which also introduce a nice classical aura on “Cross the Line.” The constant double-bass work from Pelle Hindén on “Ray of Light” gives the track more punch than most of the others on here, and it’s got one of the biggest choruses, and “The Thing” is the one track where the band fully satisfies, measuring up to some of Nocturnal Rites’ better work and losing the generic quality of much of the rest of what’s on here.

Though this is a power metal album and it’s the band’s first, I find myself reacting to it much like a lot of AOR albums from veteran bands. It shows a clear grasp of songcraft and arrangement but limits itself to only the most consonant possibilities for every member at every turn. The result is a product that is unmistakably professional and ferociously consistent, but ultimately lacking in staying power when compared to the titans of the genre: those who truly inspire wonderment.